Eating out in Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century was an experience as full of pleasure as it was of variety. Bakeries and patisseries in particular reflected the diversity of the clientele that bought brioches, ka’ak or Finikia Kourabiedes as the occasion demanded. But while some of them seemed a world apart, a number shared one thing: humble beginnings. One may have been a peasant arriving from the countryside with all his worldly belongings wrapped in a bundle, starting business with a cart, while the other may have crossed the seas with a single trunk and started as an apprentice. The Alexandrian palate, always an epicurean affair, would appreciate each, in a way, and both would prosper. The Alexandrian diner also appreciated the personal touch with which the owner endowed his eatery. Mr. Pastroudis, in his white sharkskin suit and tie, would personally receive his guests whom he knew by name. Mrs. Pizza at Délices knew all the children’s birthdays and addresses, and what to prepare for whom, when. Gastronomy in Alexandria was almost a family affair.
The earliest eateries still extant in Alexandria were established around 1900. Most were established in the European town, or the city center, which was created by the foreigners residing in Alexandria. The Ottoman Town (or Turkish Town, or Arab quarter as it is variously called) would develop a different sort of eatery later on in the century. But the Westernized cafés, patisseries, restaurants and bars all started in the down town area of Alexandria. They were the haunts of the foreign population, and the Westernized Egyptians. Recipes came from Europe, as did the hats and gloves that the clientele wore. Although there is a belief in Egypt that the Greeks of Alexandria were all grocers – or, alternatively, that all the grocers of Alexandria were Greeks – statistics tell us that this is more legend than truth. In 1915 there were only 36 grocers as opposed to 116 merchants. Greeks were successful entrepreneurs and the largest foreign community in the city. They were also the owners of most of its eateries. There would be the odd Italian, the infrequent French or Swiss (Flückiger) but the vast majority were Greek.
The “Egyptian” eateries were to be found around Attarine and rue de Bourse, and in Bahari, the Arab or Turkish part of Alexandria. These served a different kind of food altogether, and were established earlier than one would have thought. We assume that the kebda (liver) stalls that the gentrified community recently made fashionable only materialized a few years ago. Totally wrong!! Some of them started in the 1920s, almost a century ago. The fare there is hot and spicy, the quantities absolutely filling. The venue, needless to say, is modest and unassuming. What you could get at these eateries were three things: liver, fish, or grilled meat and chicken. Most of the fun of eating at those fish restaurants (and later on, in all the fish restaurants of Alexandria) is that you get to choose your own fresh fish and shrimps where they lie in boxes filled with crushed ice. A number of the fish restaurants were also Greek, such as Xenophon in Mex, where the clams were of prime quality and freshness, and were served with a delicious garlic and lemon dressing.
There were few eateries in Ramleh, which only became a residential area in the 1930s – in 1907 it was not even considered a suburb of Alexandria. To the far west, in Abu Kir, is Zephyrion the fish restaurant. Its Greek owner bought the land from Prince Omar Toussoun, a direct descendent of Egypt’s Wali Mohamed Ali. He owned most of the land in Abu Kir and, known as the Prince of Alexandria, was a patron of nearly everybody in Alexandria (in the more modern era, it seems the late president Anwar el Sadat himself made a round of all the eateries of Alexandria: every other café or restaurant claims that he ate there). Zephyrion certainly existed in the 1930s; it may have been established in the 1920s. Here is a description of what it looked like in the 1930s: “The Zephyrion Casino stood overlooking the sea on the north side. It was no more than a large wooden shack, crudely painted in green and yellow, with unattractive brown chairs and tables. But, although it was empty, it had atmosphere, and I could not help hoping it would not be replaced by some showy new construction.” (Carol, p. 173) Inevitably, it did change. Its colors are now blue and white, imitating the blue and white of the Greek islands, but it still serves some of the best fish in Alexandria. In the 1930s, too, San Giovanni would be established on the Corniche in Stanley, and a number of bakeries running along the tram from Chatby to Cleopatra – an area heavily populated with foreigners. Eventually ice cream stalls and the ubiquitous ful shops would find their way to Bulkeley and Glym. A Lord’s Inn restaurant and disco would open, and shut down, and now the American fast food chains have invaded Ramleh, just as they have taken over the city center (where once the legendary Baudrot lorded it over the coffee shops of Ramleh Station) as well as the congested Smouha. McDonald’s, Hardies, Kentucky, Pizza Hut, Cilantro, Harris Café, Starbucks and Costa Café – these are the new order. Sandwich joints have mushroomed all over the city, headed by Mo’men, the Believer, whose very name indicates the change of heart in Alexandria. The latest addition to its eateries is the koshary guy, Bonduq. Like the grill Balbaa’, it signals a reverse in the expansion pattern. Whereas expansion was usually from west of Alexandria to the east, these two eateries began in the far east and opened branches in the city center and Smouha.
As for the Greek and Western eateries of the city center, they have had a mixed fate. Some have closed down altogether, and remain a source of nostalgia for a few. Others have simply changed hands, and try to continue as before while accommodating the necessary changes of the time. Yet others have changed hands as well as identities. Tamvaco, once the confectioner par excellence, became another ful outlet, signifying the ultimate triumph of the Egyptian bean.